The Intellectual Edge: A Collective Effect

Author: 
Christopher Wooding

Attaining the Intellectual Edge is a critical step to being prepared for the future. However, the definition of the Intellectual Edge continues to be a matter of debate. This definition can vary depending on the logic used. One possible definition is reflective of John Boyd’s OODA Loop; it is being able to think better, more creatively, and faster than the opposition. Another might be defining Intellectual Edge as the pursuit of wisdom through curiosity and analysis. In a recent article, SQNLDR Matthew Gill suggests we often use the term ‘edge’ to describe an advantage over an opponent, but also suggests we might use ‘edge’ in spatial terms; to describe occupying the outer-most boundary of something and looking out, as a means of incorporating ways of thinking not traditionally thought of as military thinking. All these definitions offer insight into what is a challenging concept to describe simply. However, they also offer what the Intellectual Edge might be in behavioural terms. That is, what traits and states of being do individuals and organisations exhibit in pursuit of the Intellectual Edge, such as the pursuit of curiosity, understanding, and education. This type of definition may also help to explore whether the Intellectual Edge is a mythical ideal or an attainable reality. My answer to the idealism or attainability of the Intellectual Edge is that it’s both. To the individual, the Intellectual Edge is an ideal, something that requires continual striving to achieve but will never be fully achieved. To the organisation, however, the Intellectual Edge is attainable; it is an emergent trait of organisations. This, however, is only achievable through the collective pursuit of the Intellectual Edge by the individuals that make up the organisation. This involves promoting curiosity along with analysis of knowledge and problems, which requires both depth and breadth of education, in both individuals and organisations.

Curiosity

The first element of the Intellectual Edge is curiosity, or the desire to know. As the world becomes increasingly complex, interdependent, and cognitively demanding, the need for curiosity will only increase. Curiosity is the force that drives cross-disciplinary connections, creative problem solving, and understanding. According to Ian Leslie in Curious, curiosity is more a state of being than a trait. As a state, it is impermanent, meaning we must actively work to sustain it, like physical and mental health. Leslie suggests seven methods to maintain curiosity, which can be summarised as persistently exploring and experimenting, to do this widely and deeply, understanding the why, be interested in the details and the big picture, and viewing problems as mysteries, not puzzles.[1] The ability to pursue curiosity is closely linked to the ability to explore, experiment, and discover.

Within the context of the Intellectual Edge, curiosity appears as the driving force behind seeking out new ideas and ways of doing business. It also drives us to approach problems and solutions from new perspectives, that can let go of orthodox framing to give way to new insights. One of the challenges in the pursuit of curiosity is the acceptance of risk. Both AIRCDRE Bill Kourelakos and WOFF Andrew Garnett highlight this aspect, suggesting that we must attain the autonomy to pursue innovative solutions to achieve outcomes, ideally from the lowest level upwards. This means allowing junior enlisted and officers (the people at the proverbial coalface) to experiment and pursue their curiosity to produce results and new ideas. This pursuit of experimentation at the lowest levels has been previously suggested, both within Australia and overseas, and allows for effective and innovative solutions to be discovered. Supporting curiosity within individuals also requires organisations to produce cultures that promote it. This means finding ways to recognise and reward curiosity, but also to allow time for a culture of curiosity to develop and to share the results from that culture. This is already happening within the ADF at large, through blogs, such as The Forge, The Cove, The Runway and Grounded Curiosity, however, it will also require middle and junior leaders to set the example of curiosity within their units. While these blogs offer fantastic means for exploring curiosity, they are not enough and it is crucial that units receive permission to pursue their own innovations and curiosity, as suggested by AIRCDRE Kourelakos. However, the desire to know isn’t enough, it must be coupled with understanding, which is achieved through careful analysis and reflection.

Understanding

Understanding what we learn and know means achieving a deep grasp of what we know and how, when, and where it can and cannot be applied. While curiosity drives the desire to know and understand, understanding itself is achieved through analysis and reflection. This is often called critical thinking skills. And they are increasingly crucial to success today. This is what Carl Sagan describes in his essay The Burden of Skepticism as ‘the machinery for distinguishing [ideas] is an essential tool in dealing with the world and especially in dealing with the future.’ The ability to analyse and reflect on experiences and knowledge is essential to developing a deep understanding of topics as well as uncovering connections between topics. A complete understanding of something requires understanding its limitations and flaws, why it works and when, where, and how it doesn’t, and the differences between it and other perspectives. Questions and discussions are a highly effective means for generating understanding and can often lead to new insights. Individually, this means understanding our own position and ideas as well as those of others. The duality of understanding ourselves and others is what allows us to be confident in our opinions and avoid blind acceptance of ideas.

Although developing an understanding of ideas is essential to being able to apply them, there are still risks in this process. SQNLDR Gill highlights one of these: the danger of subordinating new ideas to orthodox understanding. In other words, interpreting a new idea through an old lens, and in doing so, overlooks the underlying problem that was trying to be addressed. This suggests that we must become more comfortable with different modes of thinking, by being able to acknowledge and step away from the orthodox to pursue alternative approaches and to understand divergent ideas.

The role of organisations in cultivating critical thinking skills is through providing opportunities to practice and develop these skills. This could be through unit discussion forums, reading lists that include question lists, or other means. As a skill, critical thinking needs to be carefully grown, through guidance and practice. This is where leaders can support their subordinates by providing coaching and direction in the pursuit of critical thinking skills. It is important to note, however, that critical thinking skills can take many forms, so it is crucial to focus on developing the habit of asking questions and seeking answers, of doing the work to hold an opinion, rather than prescribing what these questions and answers should look like. This is where how we educate defence members is important.

Education

The Intellectual Edge cannot be trained, it is a result of education. By education, I’m referring to the broad system of general learning (as opposed to training, which is the learning of specific skills/procedures). Functionally, education teaches and provides the skills for how to think and learn while training teaches people how to do. For individuals and organisations, pursuing the Intellectual Edge requires a depth and breadth of education and experience to draw on. Individuals need to pursue a depth of understanding as mentioned previously and a breadth of different experiences and perspectives to broaden their minds. Producing new ideas requires a foundation of knowledge. The broader this foundation,  Exposure to the ideas and knowledge of others is an essential part of a good education, as Isaac Newton said, “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

While it is in part the responsibility of individuals to seek out educational experiences, the frameworks offered by organisations support individuals in this. The framework within which we support the education of individuals and organisations, i.e. the education system, is important to how we develop and attain the Intellectual Edge. The functional definition of education is enabled through this system of schools and formal institutions that constitute the formal education system. And how these are structured, as organisations and as curriculum, deeply affects the results of the system. However, non-formal learning is also a significant contributor to people’s functional education.

Informal learning provides people with the experience and exposure to new ideas in an undirected manner, supplying a broader base of knowledge to operate from, beyond the often-strict curriculums faced at formal institutions. The benefits of formal and informal education allow people to pursue broad and deep educations. Organisations should foster a mix of formal and informal education to support the development of the Intellectual Edge through the collective intellectual effect of the individuals that compose an organisation. While education alone cannot implement the Intellectual Edge, as AIRCDRE Kourelakos points out, it is a crucial part of achieving it, alongside achieving the permissions and culture to support and enable the Intellectual Edge.

Conclusion

The Intellectual Edge remains a challenging concept as it demands a divergent thinking that challenges the orthodox models of understanding and framing. Attaining it demands achieving the permission and fostering an outcome-based culture as suggested by WOFF Garnett and AIRCDRE Kourelakos. It demands fostering behaviours that support curiosity, understanding, and learning within individuals and organisations through formal and informal education to produce a collective effect from the sum of intellectual efforts within an organisation. To reiterate the purpose of this article, it is to offer my own commentary and thoughts on the Intellectual Edge, to generate discussion, and hopefully, make the Intellectual Edge a little bit more attainable. Despite the challenges, achieving the Intellectual Edge will be crucial to ensuring our continued effectiveness and relevance in the future of war.

 

Chris Wooding is a Trainee Officer in the Australian Army studying at the Australian Defence Force Academy. You can continue the discussion with him on Twitter @cr_wood1.

 

[1] The difference between puzzles and mysteries is that puzzles are finite, they have a clear end state whereas mysteries are infinite, they continually invite us in to find new ways to approach it.